x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Thousands flee bushfires thought to have claimed lives of missing people

Several people were missing and feared dead today after wildfires swept through the Australian island state of Tasmania, forcing thousands to flee as residents described trees exploding in the heat.

Hundreds of local residents and tourists took to the sea in boats yesterday to escape forest fires that burned to the waterline in Australia's island state of Tasmania. EPA / Chris Kidd
Hundreds of local residents and tourists took to the sea in boats yesterday to escape forest fires that burned to the waterline in Australia's island state of Tasmania. EPA / Chris Kidd

Several people were missing and feared dead today after wildfires swept through the Australian island state of Tasmania, forcing thousands to flee as residents described trees exploding in the heat.

Acting Tasmania police commissioner Scott Tilyard said officers were investigating several reports of missing persons after fires ravaged the south of the state.

"I am fearful that someone may have died in this fire... it is a very distinct possibility still and I think people need to brace themselves that that may occur," Tilyard told reporters, saying there were grave fears in a "handful" of cases.

"Whilst we have had no known deaths associated with these fires at this particular point in time, I want to make it quite clear that it is still far too early to confirm that that is not the case," he added.

Police and troops were going door to door in the worst-hit town of Dunalley to search for the missing and confirm no lives had been lost in conditions officials had described as catastrophic.

About 70 homes were destroyed and the main street was razed, with the local school reduced to ashes and trees exploding in the heat.

"The trees just went off. They were like firecrackers -- 20, 30 feet (6-9 metres) high, the flames," Dunalley resident Tony Young told ABC radio.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will tour the devastated town on Monday.

The government also warned of further danger across the nation from extreme heat predicted in several states this week.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Australia's head of state, sent her condolences to Tasmania, expressing "deep concern" at the destruction and offering her sympathy to those who had lost homes and livelihoods.

"I offer my support and admiration for the firefighters, volunteers and emergency services officers who have been working tirelessly to contain the situation," the monarch said in a written message published by the Australian Associated Press.

Almost 3,000 people were evacuated from their homes and many were stranded Sunday in emergency shelters as the fires raged to the east and west of the state capital Hobart, cutting off roads.